Literature lovers have used books to inspire their travels since the nineteenth
century when they traveled around England to contemplate the sites that writers had written in or about, traversing imaginary literary territories such as “Dickens’s London” or “Hardy’s Wessex.” While much has changed on the literary scene since then, literary tourism is stronger than ever as the number of tours based on the Harry Potter novels, Eat, Pray Love, the Da Vinci Code and Under the Tuscan Sun have proven. More recently, Stieg Larsson’s trilogy has fueled a tourism boom in Stockholm and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series has put Forks, Washington, on the map for travelers. But you don’t have to travel to Bali in the footsteps of Elizabeth Gilbert to take a “lit trip.”
“You just need to pick a destination or a topic and find a book to match,” says Valerie Van Kooten. Van Kooten is an instructor at Central College in Pella, Iowa and an avid literary traveler. She approached a local independent bookseller, The Book Vault in Oskaloosa, Iowa, about coordinating a traveling book club. Through the Book Vault (so named because it’s located in an old bank building) she assembles book-based trips that range from close-to-home to cross-country. For example, in September a group read Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War of the the Soul of America by Fergus M. Bordewich and Mary Kay Risks’ Escape on the Pearl. In October, they traveled to historic underground railroad “stations” in Iowa. No matter how great the book, there’s nothing like actually standing in a tiny space meant to hide a runaway slave to drive home the runaways’ experience. Next up on the traveling book club itinerary: a tour of haunted Iowa based on a book of the same name; a trip to Franklin, Tennessee, for tour of Carnton Plantation with The Widow of the South author, Robert Hicks, a pilgrimage to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie sites, and a jaunt to Seattle and Forks, Washington, to get a real-life view of the landscape in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the press lately, most recently in The New York Times, about the ways in which independent bookstores are trying to retain their customers with “extras” such as coffee bars, wine bars and toy sections. Whether it’s a marketing tool or not, literary travel seems like the perfect means for independent booksellers to engage their readers in a special way, which is something they always try to do. “After I put down a book,” says Van Kooten, “I wonder what the place looks like, what the people there are like. It’s an incomplete experience.” Reading-related travel, she says, completes the picture. Contact her at VanKootenV@central.edu to find out more.
Even if you don’t live near Oskaloosa, check out the Book Vault’s terrific newsletter. It has synopses of books that look like great book club fare.